“Getting Things Done”: 43 Folders = 1 Calendar

We’re near the end of this series. In the last post I looked at a few questions you might face when starting out with the GTD methodology. Now it’s time to talk about implementing a perpetual calendar using file folders.

See, David Allen is big on the notion that you can implement GTD with just two sorts of objects: lists and folders. You need sheets of paper on which to write down lists of stuff to do (or single items), and you need folders for things like contexts. When at your phone, you pull out the “@phone” folder and start going through the sheets of paper in it, making the calls you need to make. And so forth.

So now it’s time to implement a calendar of sorts using 43 folders. Why 43? Because 31 + 12 = 43.

Setting up the folders

  1. Take 12 folders and label them with the months of the year.
  2. Take 31 more folders and label them, 1-31.
  3. Take the stack of day number folders starting with the number of day that matches tomorrow, and going to 31 even if this month has fewer than 31 days. So if you start this on February 15th, you would take the stack of folders from “16” to “31”. Those go at the front of the calendar, with “16” first of all.
  4. Take the month folder for next month and put that in next. So in our February 15th example, the next folder after “31” is “March”.
  5. Take the remaining day folders — the days of the month already past, including today — and put them in order after next month’s folder.
  6. Finally, take the remaining month folders and put them in order after the first N days of next month.

So, if we start on February 15th, the full list of folders in order is:

16, 17, 18, … 29, 30, 31
1, 2, 3, … 13, 14, 15
April, May, June, … December, January, February

Populating the folders

Now, if you have something you need to do or look at in the next month (from 16 February through 15 March), you stick that thing (the document you need to read, a piece of paper on which you wrote “Send the payment”, etc.) into that day’s folder. If someone at work’s birthday is March 5th and you want to send email to everyone at the office that day wishing that person a happy birthday, you write down a note to that effect on a sheet of paper and stick it in the “5” folder, which is behind March and therefore must pertain to March 5th, not February 5th.

If you have something you need to do or look at further in the future, simply put it in the folder for the corresponding month. So: since we’re doing this on February 15th, if something needs to happen on March 22nd, we have to stick it in the “March” folder, because the “22” folder is set up for February 22nd instead (because it’s in front of the “March” folder, signifying that March hasn’t come yet).

If you have something you need to do or look at even further in the future (say, on June 3rd, 2021 when it’s still February 15th, 2019), you should still put it in the folder for its month (“June”). You’ll see why below.

Using the folders daily

Every day, starting the day after you set up the system, you do the following:

  1. Open the folder at the front of the file. It should have a number on it which corresponds to today’s date.
  2. For every item in the folder, either do it, or decide it can wait for a later date, in which case re-file it into the appropriate folder.
  3. Today’s folder is now empty. Move it behind the folder that has yesterday’s day number in it. (In this case, we would move “16” to follow “1” through “15”, which in turn follow “March”, which follows “17” through “31”.)
  4. If today is not the last day of the month, you’re done.
On the last day of each month
  1. Take whatever day-number folders remain and move them to their place next month as well. So if today is February 28th in a non-leap year, you will move the “28”, “29”, “30”, and “31” folders all to next month.

So on February 28th of our non-leap year, after we empty the “28” folder, we move “28” through “31” to follow “March” and the other days, and our stack is now:

1, 2, 3, … 29, 30, 31
April, May, June … December, January, February

On the first day of each month
  1. Open the folder for the new month, which should be the first folder (after you completed the process above).
  2. Go through every item in the folder. If it is for that year, put it in the day it needs to be done. So in our example above, on February 15th we put something for March 22nd in the “March” folder since the “22” folder was being used for February 22nd. We will now (on March 1st) find that item and move it into the “22” folder, because that folder is now standing for March 22nd instead.
  3. You have now sorted everything for the new month into the appropriate daily folders. Move the month’s folder (empty or not — there may be things in it for future years!) to the end of the calendar stack again.
  4. Now, do what you would do every day: open the “1” folder, do its contents or defer them, and then move the “1” to follow next month’s folder.

So when you’re done at the end of the day on March 1st, the stack is now:

2, 3, 4, … 29, 30, 31
May, June, July … January, February, March

You can see now what would happen in our “June 3rd, 2021” case: the item would be placed in the June folder, and on June 1st, 2019, and June 1st, 2020, we would say “Nope, it’s not for this year, it stays in the June folder another year”, but on June 1st, 2021, we would finally move it into the “3” folder to be done two days later.

“But that’s not enough lead time!”

Right now, you might be thinking “But Shawn, if on February 2nd I file something that needs to happen on March 4th, you’re telling me it has to go into the ‘March’ folder? But on March 1st I will see it and panic because it has to be done in three days!”

And you’d be right … except, that’s not how GTD works. The point of this system is not to hide things from you until the last minute; the point of it is to hide them from you until you need to think about them again.

If on February 2nd you see a thing and go “Man, it’s gotta be done by March 3rd, but it’s going to take a few weeks to do it …” why would you put it away at all? It shouldn’t be in your 43 calendar folders; it should be in your “active” folders, so the next time you’re at the appropriate context (desk, phone, laptop, email, …) you can start working on it.

Alternatively, you may say “Well, this has to be done by March 3rd, and it’s going to take a few days to do it, but I simply can’t do more on it until February 21st because reasons.” That’s exactly what the calendar folders are for … but you don’t put it in the “March” folder. You put it in — you guessed it — the “21” folder, so on February 21st you go “Oh yeah! This thing! It’s due March 3rd but I gave myself time and today’s the first day I could actually do something about it because reasons.”

And until then, between February 2nd and 20th, you don’t have to think about it. Isn’t that great?

TLDR: Don’t put an item in the calendar folder for the day it’s due — put it in the folder for when you need to do something about it next.

Whew! It might be easier to just do all your calendaring electronically! Which is fine. The point here is you can do a perpetual calendar system that will work for GTD with nothing but folders. And it’s a really good exercise for thinking about the difference between “when does something need to be done” versus “when do I need to think about this.”

Next up: Implementing GTD with no custom apps, just a spreadsheet and a calendar app.